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Vince: minister for almost being on the left

The Business Secretary's review of "zero-hours" contracts is hardly distinguishable from Labour policy.

Business Secretary Vince Cable arrives at 10 Downing Street on May 20, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

A couple of newspapers have today reported that Vince Cable wants a review of "zero-hours" contracts – a system accused by trade unions (among others) of being exploitative.

Around 200,000 British workers are estimated to be tied into these deals, especially in the fast food and other high street retail sectors, which require a commitment to be available for work without any guarantee of shifts. In other words, you can be on call enough to make it hard to look for or do another job and yet get to the end of the week with barely a penny to show for it.

The TUC has welcomed the new review. It isn’t often that union leaders have kind words for coalition ministers, but then again, this is Vince, Secretary of State for tantalising proximity to the left. The terms of Cable’s investigation aren’t all that different from official Labour policy, which is also to review zero-hours contracts, tighten rules and and clamp down on abuses.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham recently told the BBC his party should look at banning the practice (which has its own specific and pernicious impact in the NHS) but Labour sources today confirm that a ban is not the official line. The reservation comes from recognition that at least some employees like the flexibility of a zero-hours deal.

The Business Secretary has also clearly picked up that ambivalence. In parliament today, Cable’s response to a Labour question on zero-hours deals was markedly more neutral than this morning’s newspaper briefings. He would not be drawn on whether they represented healthy flexibility or mean exploitation:

"We do indeed have anecdotes about abusive practices in that area. We also have a lot of other anecdotes to show that the system works very well for a large number of workers and companies. I am not jumping to any conclusions; I am just trying to gather the facts."

Labour people I have spoken to are pointing to that as a retreat from the tougher-sounding headlines. They are keen to raise the question of whether Cable’s intervention represents a new government position or an out-riding Lib Dem position within government – the two aren’t necessarily the same thing. Reviews can be commissioned and come to nought. Recommendations can be implemented or ignored or, indeed, shelved with a view to being inserted in a future party manifesto.

On which subject, some Lib Dems are increasingly of the view that the party can and should show a little more flexibility on economic policy so as not to preclude any future partnership with Labour by marching too briskly to the beat of a Conservative drum. Such "equidistance" has become much more plausible now that Ed Balls has accepted the broad fiscal parameters of austerity into the next parliament. The big argument is shifting away from the question of whether the time is right to impose budget discipline (where the Lib Dems and the Tories are locked in consensus) to questions of how to impose discipline in a way that is fair and protects public services (where there is more room for Lib Dem flirting with the opposition).

Crucial to that conversation will be an argument about the appropriate balance between tax rises and spending cuts and in that debate I gather there is a movement afoot in the Lib Dem ranks to move the party much closer to Labour by supporting a restoration of the top 50p tax rate. There is even talk of formalising that position as early as this year’s annual conference. (Labour has yet to commit to doing the same but, given the fuss the two Eds have made about tax cuts for millionaires, it seems unlikely they will fight an election accepting Osborne’s gift to the rich as a fait accompli.) Labour, meanwhile, has already embraced the mansion tax – a policy very close to Lib Dem hearts.

If Labour has a mansion tax in its manifesto and the Lib Dems have a top rate of 50p and both are committed to cracking down on zero-hours contracts, the first morning of coalition negotiations in a hung parliament will break for an early lunch.